Interview with Barbara Tillett

Many Library Juice readers who are familiar with Sanford Berman’s work on LC subject heading reform have read or heard the name Barbara Tillett. Barbara Tillett has for many years been the chief of the Library of Congress Cataloging Policy and Support Office, and thus has figured into Berman’s career-long crusade to reform LC’s subject headings with the aim of making them fairer and more accessible. In his inspiring accounts of his crusade to rid LCSH of its Eurocentric, sexist, insulting and obscure subject headings, the person of Barbara Tillett often figured in as an obstacle to enlightened progress (never as much as the sheer weight of the great bureaucracy that is LC, but as a heel-dragging bureaucrat and defender of the old guard nonetheless).

My own feeling, in listening to these accounts, is that people like to be inspired by stories that have a hero and a bad guy, but that reality is always more complex. I’ve often wondered what Barbara Tillett would have to say in answer to some of Berman’s more convincing arguments (many if not most of which have indeed, over time, convinced LC), and have felt that the discussion about subject headings and cataloging reform among progressives has been a little poor in the absence of LC’s own point of view regarding the various questions that have come up.

Barbara Tillett has agreed to let me interview her about subject heading reform and new developments in cataloging. In the following interview we will discuss some general issues around subject heading reform as well as some specific cases, including the case of the “God” subject heading, which remains as it was when Berman first discussed it in his first book, Prejudices and Antipathies.

First of all, Barbara, I want to thank you for agreeing to this interview. I’d like to start by asking you for an explanation of the process of subject heading reform from your point of view, with reference to some of the issues involved and to Sanford Berman’s activism. What would you like people to understand about it?

Barbara Tillett:

Thank you for this opportunity! As you know the Library of Congress Subject Headings were originally developed for LC’s own collection over 100 years ago. As terminology changes and new topics appear, we update the subject heading terms based both on recommendations from our own catalogers, from about 300 partners in the SACO Program (Subject Cataloging Cooperative Program of the Program for Cooperative Cataloging), and from contributors worldwide. We are very grateful to all the contributors for recommendations. As more users beyond LC began using our system, we provided documentation to describe our principles and policies so others could follow the same practices as our own catalogers, and also to provide consistency among LC’s catalogers and those contributing to our cooperative programs. We have a standard process for submitting new proposals for changes and additions to the subject headings that is described in the Subject Cataloging Manual as well as on our Web site: And the SACO information for submitting proposals can be found at:

The general rule for assigning subject headings is to give one or more subject headings that “best summarize the overall contents of the work and provide access to its most important topics.” At LC this means we focus on “topics that comprise at least 20% of the work.” Other institutions may be able to provide more extensive subject analysis and reach topics in articles and news clippings (as Mr. Berman finds), but we rely on the catalogers discovering terminology in the materials they are cataloging. We also check to see how much we have on a given topic in order to possibly be more specific. Additionally, the use of free-floating subdivisions helps us make headings more specific in a consistent way.

One aspect of “subject heading reform” means keeping the LCSH vocabulary updated, and we’ve been doing that since the beginning of LCSH. We constantly maintain the subject headings and try to keep the controlled vocabulary current with today’s topics and terminology without changing headings too quickly to terminology that is ephemeral. Sometimes we add the ephemeral term as a cross-reference, for example, we recently added “Culture wars” as a reference under “Culture conflict.” We are keenly aware of the impact of any changes on the resources of the Library of Congress catalogers and the resources of our users. At the same time we continuously make changes we feel are important to maintain the currency and viability of LCSH.

In the past, it was especially noticeable that changes were not made quickly. For example, the change of “European War, 1914-1918” to “World War, 1914-1918” was made only in 1981. As Mary Kay Pietris noted in a recent email, “For the many years that the list was published infrequently and set in hot lead type, we couldn’t respond to change quickly. When we first automated in the 60’s, the system was clunky. When the card catalogs were closed in 1981, we were able to make more changes because we didn’t have to worry about changing the cards, but the authority work and changing of headings on bib records was still time-consuming and complicated. We didn’t get any sort of global update until 2005, ?¢‚Ǩ¬¶so we are better equipped to make changes than we were even 25 years ago, but it still isn’t easy.”

We also are aware that the meaning and connotations of words change over time and vary from culture to culture, so we have made adjustments where terminology once considered appropriate is no longer considered acceptable. We hear from many communities about changing perceptions with terminology and respond as we feel is appropriate to each situation. For example over the years we have changed:

Australian aborigines to Aboriginal Australians (in 2003)

Cripples to Handicapped to People with disabilities (with the latter change in 2002)

Gypsies to Romanies (in 2001)

Negroes to Afro-Americans to African Americans (the latter change in 2000).

We have just changed “Vietnamese Conflict, 1961-1975” to “Vietnam War, 1961-1975.”

Our primary users are the US Congress and United States citizens, but we are certainly interested to also address the needs of global users to the degree we are able. The current set of headings reflects the work of hundreds of catalogers and varying philosophies over time, so we are aware that there are inconsistencies, but also cautious about making changes.

Another aspect of “reform” is changing practices. One major step to such reform was the Airlie House meeting on subject subdivision practices held in 1991 after which we changed headings and practices to try to meet the goal of more consistency in terminology and in the order of subdivisions, based on the consensus opinion at the time. The identification of form subdivisions came from the Airlie House meetings and took several years to implement following changes in the MARC format. Another changed practice from 1974 was the introduction of free-floating subdivisions to enable users to construct more specific subject heading strings without having to “establish” each combination. After Airlie House we tried to “tame” the whole free-floating practice to have it be more consistent and rational.

What Mr. Berman may see as his “reform” movement, we see as the normal process of maintaining a controlled vocabulary. Every day we address new and changed headings coming from our catalogers and our SACO Program partners and others worldwide, who use the same procedures as our own Library of Congress staff. No grandstanding is needed, no lobbying of members of Congress or fellow librarians, just the simple act of submitting a formal proposal with evidence that the new or changed heading is needed to catalog library materials. We welcome that assistance.


Would you explain the concept of “literary warrant” as it is involved in establishing a new subject heading? I recall seeing, in some of the materials that Berman distributed to friends, examples of articles where the expression he was advocating as a new subject heading was used.


Literary warrant deals with the need for the use of a subject heading as evidenced in the materials cataloged by the Library of Congress and our partners as well as choosing terminology found in current literature and the language, construction, and style used in LCSH. We document the justification for establishing a subject heading in the subject authority records.


In looking at the new ideas for Subject Headings that Berman has advocated, I’ve noticed that they usually fall into one of two categories of justification: fairness to the people being described, or not wanting to use language that is arguably insulting (e.g. “Romanies” instead of “Gypsies” or “Hansen’s Disease” instead of “Leprosy”), and wanting to make works accessible by using ordinary rather than technical or official language (e.g. “light bulbs” instead of “electric lamp, incandescent,” which took a while to change).


Can we turn this around to how we see this rather than how Mr. Berman sees it? Most of our correspondence contains helpful and constructive suggestions – what criticism we receive is simply not as he characterizes it. There is no onslaught of letters and emails and faxes from outraged librarians or researchers. For the most part, public criticism comes from Mr. Berman or other individuals he has urged to write to us. We’re more inclined to react favorably to constructive suggestions than to coercive techniques such as petitions, hostile articles in the library literature, emotional attacks, or letters of complaint to members of Congress. Methods such as these are almost always counterproductive, whereas more cooperative and positive approaches usually produce good results.

“Fairness” to whom? We want to be informed of headings that some may now consider outdated or offensive, but one group’s or one person’s viewpoint is not always the general consensus. As noted above we must weigh the impact of change, and test the current literary warrant and appropriateness of terminology in today’s society. This involves checking the Web and other current news media to verify terminology that may appear on a new book and checking authoritative sources to assure the suggested new term is acceptable. Often we work in consultation with special interest groups or those who are most knowledgeable about a particular field. For example, in changing “Australian aborigines” to “Aboriginal Australians,” we relied on the guidance and expertise of the National Library of Australia. When we were contemplating changing “Handicapped” to “Disabled,” it was the forceful advocacy of people and organizations in this field that convinced us that “People with disabilities” is now the appropriate terminology, and that “Disabled” is considered by many to be as offensive as “Handicapped” because it puts the emphasis on the condition rather than on the people. Before we made the change from “Gypsies” to “Romanies,” staff members from CPSO attended a seminar on the topic at the Holocaust Museum and consulted closely with a renowned expert and advocate in this field. After we changed the heading to “Romanies,” we received complaints from several individuals and a few organizations that opposed our discontinuing usage of the term Gypsies. This is a good example of how there can be differing and conflicting viewpoints that we have to weigh when making subject heading changes, and how difficult it is to please everyone.

“Accessibility” in terms of using ordinary language, for what audience? We have children’s headings for that audience, and otherwise LCSH is targeting the US public and our Congress. We rely on special thesauri for special audiences, like MeSH for technical medical language to meet the needs of doctors and others in the medical profession, and NASA’s thesaurus for aerospace engineers. In demonstrating that a new term is now “ordinary language” or that an old term is now referred to using a new term in “ordinary language,” we’d use evidence from the materials we are cataloging. Additionally we do consult newspapers, the Web, and respected authoritative sources – this is back to avoiding ephemeral terminology as main headings – but considering such terms for references.


Sanford Berman has written about one subject heading that he has found controversial that particularly interests me, and I find it a little disturbing that it hasn’t been changed. I’m referring to the subject heading for “God,” which is still used for the Christian God as well as God without referring to a specific religion, while God in other religions are identified specifically by their religion (e.g. “God, Muslim”). Why isn’t the subject heading for the Christian God, “God, Christian?” Having the Christian God referred to by the subject heading “God” without subdivisions in the U.S. government’s official classification of all things in effect establishes an official Christian perspective for the United States. An argument based on common usage would be based on the assumption of a Christian population, while the United States is a country of great religious pluralism. Can you tell me if this is an issue that has been discussed at LC, and if it has, what are the considerations at present that have prevented this SH from being updated, or work in favor of its being updated? Can you summarize the discussion within LC?


Because the term “God” refers not only to the Christian God, but also the concept in general, it gets very difficult to clean up 100 years of past practice, but we think we’ve found a solution using class numbers in combination with reports we think we can get…all this is still to be explored. We now have some global update and other computer assistance capabilities for the massive changes this will entail.

As we now envision it, there would still be the “God” heading alone for the concept in general and comparative terms. We’d follow our practice for other religions to set up “God (Christianity)”. For the concept of “God” from the perspective of denominations for any religion, we’d use a subdivision for the denomination under the appropriate “God” heading. This would involve the least disruption to existing headings, and yet still require re-examining hundreds of authority records, as well as many thousands of bibliographic records. We do not take such steps lightly and certainly not without a lot of checking. However, we agree it is long overdue, and I’ll keep you posted as we progress in our explorations.


Wow, that is great news. I’d like to talk about one other subject heading that bugs me. When I checked recently, “Zionism” was a broader term for “Jews – Politics and Government.” As a Jew who is interested in politics and government but who is not a Zionist, and as someone who is interested in the Reform Jewish opposition to the original Zionist project, this bugs me.


Zionism used to be a BT (broader term) for Jews – Politics and government, but as of 2005 they are now “related terms.” (See the Weekly List 49, 2005*). In 1986 we converted to the MARC authority format and began distributing subject authority records. At that time we adopted the standard thesaural notation of BT, NT, RT (broader term, narrower term, related term) in place of our see and see also references (x and xx), and converted our existing records using computer algorithms. We continue to adjust where the computer algorithm resulted in a flip that was inappropriate.

*The 27th edition of LCSH (2005) has Jews–Politics and government as a NT under Zionism. On Weekly List 05-49 for December 7, 2005, the relationship between the two headings was revised. BT Zionism was cancelled from the record for Jews–Politics and government and replaced with an RT Zionism. Jews–Politics and government was added as an RT under Zionism.


Thanks, that’s gratifying and interesting. In general, would you say that LCSH inevitably reflects politics in some way?


The Library of Congress is the national library for the United States and to some extent we reflect US policy (for example using Burma not Myanmar). We follow Congressional perspectives and those of our State Department to a degree but also apply our own sense of appropriateness and seek to find suitable alternatives to avoid conflicts when we can. An example of that is our establishing the heading Cyprus, Northern to recognize the region without getting into the political status issues of recognizing Northern Cyprus.


Thanks very much for taking the time to explain these issues from LC’s perspective.

23 comments on “Interview with Barbara Tillett

  1. An extremely important interview. Well done. This will be of grerat use for students trying to understand the political controversies in cataloging in which Sanford Berman played so important a role, especially in putting them into the context, for better or worse, of the more general practices and attitudes (and their changes over time) of the LC and its staff with reference to modifications in subject headings, including in response to social and political criticism.

  2. Fabulous! Thanks to both of you – this is illuminating and very helpful. I will recommend this not just to catalogers but to researchers who want to know how catalogs work.

    By the way, grateful as we all may be for Berman’s decades of activism, this post is a terrific example of how to go looking for “the rest of the story” and I thank you for that, Rory.

  3. Cool interview.

    My only disappointment that there was no question and answer concerning the future of LCSH in light of the direction that LC’s cataloging policy changes.

  4. Interesting interview for LCSH users. However, the comment that LC is “more inclined to react favorably to constructive suggestions than to coercive techniques such as petitions, hostile articles in the library literature, emotional attacks, or letters of complaint to members of Congress,” bothered me because it seems inequitable, so I checked the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association. There seems to be a little conflict with Article 1 of the Code, which states … “provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.” Perhaps unfortunately, it doesn’t say anything about giving less favorable attention to the requests of annoying people. 🙂

  5. Great interview. Nice to hear LC’s side of the story. We can all appreciate the enormity of changing a single term like God (and it’s many connotations). Having had to change major subject headings manually in the days of catalog cards I think it’s incredible that the L of C would consider major revisions (even in an automated system) at all.

    Barbara Tillett is certainly an expert in the world of cataloging. She never fails to amaze me by her intelligent and relevant comments. Bravo Barbara!

  6. Congrats to Rory for doing this interview. I believe that Sandy Berman will have some comments to make – and I hope he posts those. I simply don’t understand why LC hasn’t greatly updated its subject headings – as Berman did at Hennepin County. I recommend making Sandy an official advisor to LC and let his genius be fully utilized while we have his energy and intelligence. There is no reason in the world why LC cannot update its subject headings quickly.

  7. I have been stimulated by Berman’s crusade, but am glad to read Barbara Tillett’s well reasoned explanation of LC’s gradualist policies. I was pleased to be a San Diego colleague of Barbara’s many years ago and am still cataloging at SDSU on a volunteer basis during retirement.

  8. while the United States is a country of great religious pluralism.

    In your imagination. The population of the United States now exceeds 300,000,000. About half the population are not religiously observant, but identify themselves as adherents of one or another Christian illumination; observant Christians number about a third of the population; the consistently secular are about one in seven; practicing Jews number fewer than two million; the number of practicing Muslims is disputed but two million may be the most substantiated number; adherents to Unitarianism and Ethical Culture number fewer that 200,000. The religious idiom in this country is Christian for all but a small minority.

    One cannot help but note that conceptions of ‘fairness’ bruited about herein (originating variously from the interviewer, the lady from the Library of Congress, and Mr. Berman) work to confound the public by substituting for common terms more cumbersome, contrived or esoteric ones (‘romanies’, ‘aboriginal australians’, ‘people with disabilities’), and that the list of groups whose sensibilities are considered to deserve special attention seems irritatingly predictable.

  9. I am reminded of a movie scene in which Denzel Washington has taken the physical abuse and the sign of his suffering is the track of one tear. If that one scene forever marked DW as knowing the soul of an everyday hero, then Barbara Willit meets that definition for me, too.

    I am also reminded, as a public servant, of the many times one loud complainer catches a headline and that the library spends untold man hours to respond to one person’s agenda. Those who throw fits know exactly how and why it works. Seeking to punish LC in the eyes of government, colleagues and the public is a form of verbal abuse. VA has been proven to be at least as harmful as physical to the subjects who experience it.

    Sanford Berman knows how to use the channels that would result in the changes he seeks. I wonder why he perfers to use and abuse LC????? May Barbara continue to be a force that cannot be overcome by these tactics.

  10. Super work, Rory. Thank you so much for pursuing the opportunity to get this interview.

  11. Many thanks to Barbara for her discussion. The complexity of the situation concerning subject headings and changes to subject headings was presented clearly.

  12. Thanks to Barbara for her knowledge of the current process of how subject headings are approved and maintained at LC. More interviews of leaders in library and information science would help enlighten all who are unaware of the current processes and thinking in our profession.
    There are a number of communities who are tackling subject representation on the Web and in search systems. I believe it would be beneficial if librarians shared their knowledge of subject organization principles with other communities. Interviews and forums similiar to the one Barbara provided should be encouraged. The LC, Science, Technology & Business Division recently sponsored a lecture by Peter Morville, father of information architecture, in which he confirmed the need for librarians and information specialists to take an active role in utilizing controlled vocabularies, taxonomies and metadata to improve findability (search).
    Bravo Barbara and Peter.

  13. Thanks to Barbara for her Knowledge
    Interviews of Barbara will be encueraged for me and for all librarians of my country
    Barbara is a definition for me
    Barbara is a”SIR”in the world of cataloging
    For me :When remember FRBR presuppose Barbara,and when remember Barbara presuppose FRBR
    This is a firefly for cataloger
    I see new ideas for subject heading
    Barbara is a definition and for Philosophy of librarianship
    FRBR or Functional requirement for Bibliographyc Records,is a conceptual model for catalogs developed,as/means of linking all manifestations of a work.FRBR is an entity-relationship model allowing user needs comprehensible link between entities and their subjects,and the item that embody them.
    In FRBR ALL MANIFESTATION OF ISMAIL KADARE(ALBANIAN WRITER)Including the original Albanian text,a translation(bello,vrioni,elsie,ect)and an annotated edition-will be linked to the same overarching record representing the idea of that work.This allows a”Family of Works”to be grouped together.for examle an interactive link others Autho’s works like Kafka,Flaubert,Marques,Swift,Kundera,Sollzhenitsyn,Gogol,Orwell,Dante,Xianling,Zhan,Yoshimoto Banana,Yoshimura Akira,Hijuelos,Sunetra,Grass,Gunter,Amada Jorge,Berberova Nina,Bufalino Gesualdo,Dumas Alexandre,Flawbert,Goethe,Gogol,Esquieval laura,Shakespeare,FRBR PROVIDES the users with more complete picture of a work by showing its manifestation.FRBR-Concept of”SUPERWORKS”AND NATURE OF WORK,as well as its relationships with other works,At the same time,it also provides users to be master to find what they have need.In Academic Libraries ,classic works of literature on reading room list in multiple edition would be grouped together under umbrella of the work itself.and so FRBRfacililates and increase ease in navigation a catalog,as well as finding manifestation of a single work.AND LAST I am together in opinions of most colleagues tha FRBR is neither a sobstitute for MARC nor a replacement of AACR2

  14. Since Rory Litwin, the owner of this blog, apparently will not publish Sanford Berman’s response to Litwin’s interview with Barbars Tillett, I urge readers to see the upcoming issues 141 (Part 1) and 142 (Part 2) of the U*N*A*B*A*S*H*E*Dtm Librarian for what Berman had to say.

    Irrespective of the blog owner’s point of view, the fair thing would be to publish the comments of Berman in the same blog space––in which comments regarding the original interview appeared. Fyi, Berman’s view is that Tillett’s remarks mischaracterized his “reform” efforts and “sugar-coated” LC’s practices.

    For the purpose of full disclosure, I have been Berman’s personal friend for close to 35 years; I am the person who hired and worked with him at Hennepin County Library (1972-1974); and I am the publisher of the U*N*A*B*A*S*H*E*Dtm Librarian, for which Berman is a contributing editor and columnist.

    I would add that I have not published as voluminously on this topic as Berman, a look at my personal website,, will show that I have written much on the subject from my own perspective and agree with the substance of Berman’s efforts for reform.

    On an historical note, Edward Blume was the only LC cataloging official (a former head of the subject cataloging division) since I left LC’s employ in 1968 who–in my view and experience–had an open mind about LC’s cataloging practices and treated Berman’s suggestions and critiques with the respect they well-merited. I cannot say the same thing about the others responsible for LC’s cataloging policies and practices who, after 1968, preceded and succeeded Blume, and most especially Ms. Tillett.

    /s/ mitch
    Maurice J. Freedman, MLS, PhD
    Past President, American Library Association
    Library Consultant
    Publisher, the U*N*A*B*A*S*H*E*Dtm Librarian, the ‘how I run my library good’sm letter,

  15. Mitch, I’d be happy to publish Sandy’s response. Send it on in electronic form. I was not aware that he wanted me to publish it or that this was somehow an issue.

    It’s too late for the book, I’m afraid.

  16. Sanford Berman’s response to this is available in the new book Radical Cataloging: Essays at the Front (McFarland, 2008), pages 5-11. This may be easier for some to get hold of than Unabashed Librarian.

  17. No, as far as I know Sandy’s response was never published online. I’d be happy to post it here if someone wanted to send me the text. He sent it out to a number of people on paper and demanded that I publish it. I did not appreciate his tone or his sense that he is in a position to demand something like that, so I didn’t do him the favor of typing up his response for him, which he so easily could have emailed to me. If someone else would like to type it up and email it to me though, I’d be happy to post it here.

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